‘Shakespeare—Staging the World’ at the British Museum

The Lyte Jewel (left); Richard III Courtesy of the British Museum(left); Courtesy of Society of Antiquaries of London-British Museum

What do a reliquary set with the gouged-out eyeball of a Catholic priest, foot-high platform shoes, and a narwhal tusk have in common? The perhaps surprising answer is that they are all things that would have been known to the audience that packed the Globe Theater to see the plays of William Shakespeare 400 years ago.

Today, they are among the objects that have been gathered together at the British Museum for its magnificent new exhibition Shakespeare—Staging the World, which aims to present the world as the playgoers of London circa 1612 would have experienced it. The silver reliquary containing the right eye of the Jesuit priest Blessed Father Edward Oldcorne, which was collected at his execution at Worcester in 1606, brings a gruesome layer of resonance to the famous lines from Lear when Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall, “Out vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?” Today this scene is a ghoulish coup de theatre; in 1612, it would have been a moment alive with the frisson of contemporary politics.

Gouged-out eyeballs were not exactly an everyday occurrence, but they were an unavoidable fact of life for the playgoers who flocked across London Bridge to Southwark, then the theatrical and red-light district of the capital. The playhouse, the “Magic O,” was a place where in the absence of newspapers, let alone the Internet, the populace could make sense of the brave new world around them.

For, as the exhibition richly demonstrates, the London that the theatergoers of 1612 would have known was a city trying to make sense of issues like race relations, national identity, sexual politics, and religious tolerance; themes that feel startlingly contemporary to the modern visitor. Take the issue of national identity—in 1612, England was under the rule of James I, who was also the King of Scotland. The exhibition features designs made in 1604 for a Union Flag of Great Britain to symbolize the union of the two countries through the king. The idea of Britain as one united nation was explored by Shakespeare in the famous speech made by John of Gaunt on his deathbed in Richard II: “This fortress built by nature for herself/Against infection and the hand of war/This happy of men, this little world/This precious stone set in a silver sea.” And later in Cymbeline, Cloten says, “Britain’s/A world by itself.” An audience that was coming to terms with the idea of a Scottish king on the English throne might well have been reassured by watching the idea of Britain being played out on the stage as a historic and noble concept. Who knows what contemporary Scottish visitors, who are looking forward to a referendum about independence in 2014, will feel?

A whole section of the exhibition is dedicated to Venice. There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever left his native country, but he set his plays all over the known world, using Venice in particular—with its maritime trade, multicultural population, and questionable morals—as, the curators assert, “a reflection to Londoners of their own desires and fears, their own future.” For Jacobean Londoners, Venice was a city of easy virtue. The exhibition has a print from 1578 that shows a gondola with a closed canopy; the viewer can lift the flap to reveal a couple canoodling underneath. Although Venice was famous for its courtesans, it was not easy to distinguish them by their dress from wives. Both sets of women wore the sky-high chopines, or platform shoes, in which they were expected to walk and even dance. The pair featured here would make the most dedicated Louboutin wearer wince. Othello is tortured by Iago about the fuzzy line between vice and virtue trod by Venetian wives, whose “best conscience/Is not to leave undone, but kept unknown.”

When Shakespeare wrote a play about a Moor of Venice he was writing for an audience that was just beginning to have contact with sub-Saharan Africans. The curator of the exhibition, Dora Thornton, and Jonathan Bate, a consultant on the exhibition, estimate that London had around 900 black Africans in a population of 200,000 (a percentage that is not far off from today’s London), many of whom lived in the “suburbs” like Southwark, which contained the playhouses. Although many of these were slaves, there was no law against intermarriage, so the union of Othello, the Moor of Venice, to the fair (white) Desdemona was not unthinkable. The exhibition includes some objects that show a developing aesthetic of black beauty—there is a magnificent marble bust of a black African by the French-Italian sculptor Nicolas Cordier dating from 1610, and an elaborate silver gilt cup made in the shape of a Moor’s head from 1602.

Shakespeare’s plays, as well as being sublime works of art, are also products of their time. The spectacular fiasco of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, which was a Catholic act of terrorism allegedly designed to blow up the king, his family, and the judiciary, provided the essential backdrop for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which deals with “dire combustion and confused events.” This is the only time that Shakespeare uses the word combustion, and it is in this play that he introduces the word “assassination” into the English language. The exhibition includes the lantern that Guy Fawkes was allegedly holding when he was arrested; the fact that this item was preserved shows how significant the event was in the popular imagination. Even the Weird Sisters, the witches who prophesy Macbeth’s rise to power, would have had real resonance for the playgoers of the 1600s. When they declare that “though his bark cannot be lost/Yet it shall be tempest tossed,” the audience would have been aware that James had been prevented from marrying his bride Anne of Denmark for months on account of terrible storms that were believed to have been caused by witchcraft, and for which six Danish “witches” were executed. The mummified calf’s heart stuck with pins that was used as a counter-charm against witches’ curses on livestock, and a cursing bone from Argyll, are mute testaments to the magical thinking universal at the time.

The timing of this exhibition is deliberate. Olympic sporting events come and go, but Shakespeare endures as Britain’s greatest cultural legacy, whose genius is embraced in every country and by every culture. At the end of the exhibition is a solitary case containing the only item from the 20th century. It is a book of the complete works of Shakespeare that was one of the few volumes available to the inmates of Robben Island, where the South African government imprisoned the opponents of apartheid. This book was passed around by the inmates and each would initial their favorite passages. The book is open to the scene in Julius Caesar where Caesar declaims that “Cowards die many times before their deaths: the valiant never taste of death but once/Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear,/Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it come.” The passage is dated Dec. 16, 1977, and the signature beside it reads Nelson Mandela.

Daisy Goodwin is a novelist and TV producer.